Thursday, December 20, 2012

Kline Online's Best Book of 2012

It's that time of year again, to name the winner of the world-famous, highly coveted, Best Book of 2012 award from the "staff" here at Kline Online (award only redeemable at participating locations and holds no cash value). Just to reiterate, in case you somehow missed last year's award, although I am not sure how that is possible, the Best Book of 2012 is simply my selection of the best book I read last year. It is more a book recommendation made from my own personal library than it is a thorough review of the American literary landscape over the past year.

I hemmed and I hawed before I wrote this blog, thinking to myself, surely I cannot award the Best Book of 2012 to the same author who won the award (albeit posthumously) in 2011! But alas, I can. And I have. Why should I kid myself and all of you wonderful folks who visit this corner of the information superhighway about what the Best Book of 2012 was because of some arbitrary feeling that I should share the wealth with another author? The fact of the matter is that the best book I read in 2012 was David Halberstam's The Fifties

Halberstam has long been a favorite of mine, and he should become a favorite of yours. When he died in a car accident in 2007 the world lost a phenomenal writer, whose brand of journalism, which was comprised of an almost evangelical commitment to truth-telling no matter how painful, has nearly disappeared from the planet, much to everyone's loss.

I stumbled upon a 1993 first edition of The Fifties at The Book Plate in Chestertown, and it sat on my bookshelf for a few years before I picked it up in the spring of 2012. Like everything else I have read from Halberstam, the quality of the prose and the flow of the story were both first rate. I immediately regretted settling for lesser fare while The Fifties sat unread on my shelf. 

In the minds of many Americans, the 1950s represent this time of tremendous innocence, when life was simple and the economy roared. Largely we think of Andy Griffith's Mayberry when we think of the 1950s. But in what is his trademark detail, Halberstam, himself a child of the 1950s, paints a picture of a decade of tremendous technological advance when America evolved from the unassuming and isolated society it had been prior to World War II into the modern society that we can largely still recognize today.

Ideas that saw their genesis in the Fifties, like the highway system and large suburban tract development have in the intervening six decades come to dominate not only the American landscape, but help to define our very society. Everything from the modern daily commute from the suburbs to the city, to the ease of airline travel is traceable to this fascinating decade in which America came to be, well, America. Perhaps the most important thing to come out of the 1950s was the creation of the American Middle Class as we would still recognize it today.

Halberstam covers a lot of territory in the 700 page tome, but the book never feels dense. The Fifties is as close to a page-turner as I think history can well get, as Halberstam tells the well-researched and detail oriented story of the decade that saw the beginnings of Holiday Inn, McDonald's, McCarthyism, the race to space, television, effective contraception, and much else besides.

Halberstam also reflects pointedly on the consumerism that was rampant during the 1950s, and how a system that was struggling to be modern was actually still fundamentally underpinned by some very old concepts that were beginning to fray at the seams. We see long-held beliefs related to sexuality, race, gender roles, and youth beginning to be questioned by thought leaders in the 1950s. Those same questions would be asked much more forcefully and by many more people in the decade that followed.

And like any good history, one can easily find tangents to their own time, when a sometimes crippling dependence on technology has us wondering where we end and where our devices begin. You can get a copy of David Halberstam's The Fifties for less than ten bucks on Amazon. Put down your e-reader and pick up a copy.

Honorable Mentions for Best Book of 2012: H.W. Brands: The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses S. Grant in War and Peace and John Lewis Gaddis: George F. Kennan: An American Life   

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